Alabama (AP) – When a hospice nurse called an Alabama pharmacy to ask why pain medication wasn’t working, the technician taking the call could hear a patient moaning in agony in the background, federal prosecutors said.
The technician, Johnathon Click, suspected the patient was in anguish because of what he’d done, prosecutors wrote in court documents.
Click is accused of tampering with vials of medicine intended for cancer patients by removing morphine to feed his opioid addiction and shipping off diluted, ineffective medicine.
The complaint against Click, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in northern Alabama, is the latest repercussion of an opioid addiction crisis that’s ravaged communities across the nation.
Click, 30, has accepted responsibility for his actions, and did so in his first interview with authorities, said his lawyer, Clayton Tartt. Click intends to plead guilty to tampering with consumer products as part of a plea agreement, Tartt said.
“This is one more aspect of the epidemic problem America has with abuse of prescription opioids,” U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town said in a statement.
As the lead pharmacy technician at Birmingham-based ContinuumRx of Central Alabama, Click prepared IV fluid bags containing medications for patients, prosecutors wrote in court records. The IV bags included the opioids morphine or hydromorphone.
In September 2016, Click distracted a pharmacist who witnessed him taking morphine from a cabinet and putting it in his pocket, prosecutors said. An inventory check then found signs that the pharmacy’s supply of morphine sulfate had been tampered with.
Click “would take the opioids to his car where he would draw out the desired amount from the vials,” prosecutors wrote in court papers. “The defendant would replace the stolen drugs with saline or sterile water.”
The diluted drugs were meant for hospices or terminally ill patients, and were not as effective at relieving pain as fully potent ones. Most of the hospice patients served by ContinuumRx suffered some form of terminal cancer, prosecutors said.
When the drugs failed to relieve the patients’ pain, nurses would call ContinuumRx, often seeking guidance from Click since he was the technical expert at the pharmacy.
“During one of these calls, the defendant heard the patient moaning in pain,” prosecutors wrote. “The defendant suspected that this patient had received an IV bag prepared with diluted opioids from one of the vials with which he had tampered.”
ContinuumRx, which terminated Click’s employment in September 2016, did not respond to messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Click acknowledged a history of drug addiction and sought help at a drug rehabilitation facility, prosecutors wrote in court records.
He now faces up to 10 years in prison, but hopes to receive less than that by entering into the plea agreement.